Sunday, 28 February 2010

Born to be Good – Dacher Keltner ***

There has been a spate of books over recent years on the science of morals, happiness and more. In this book, joining the crowd, Dacher Keltner examines the science of a meaningful life.
He starts off in a way that immediately raises suspicions. I’m sure what he’s trying to do is be more approachable – and perhaps that works for some audiences – but for me, the way he brings in Eastern philosophies and is always relating things to the Confucian concept of ‘jen’ which apparently ‘refers to kindness, humanity and reverence’ is worrying. In many aspects of science, the tendency to bring in Eastern philosophies is a red flag that this the rest of the contents are pseudo-science, based on vague similarities between, for example, Daoist ideas and quantum theory. So we then get a fusion of misplaced quantum physics terminology and woo. That isn’t really what’s happening here – Keltner just wants to emphasize the importance of what was represented by jen in real, scientific observations on human nature – but the use, which continues throughout the book with a pseudo-scientific ‘jen ratio’ inevitably taints the content and makes it difficult to take it entirely seriously.
This worry is reinforced when occasionally the author seems to force the point to match his Eastern philosophy = good stuff mantra. He tells us that using emotion as a guide, as emphasized by Eastern religions, is a good thing – but uses illustrations where the feelings tell us to hate someone, but instilled behaviour says we should tolerate them. Is this really a good thing? He seems to be arguing for the lynch mob over the civilized trial. The reasoning to support his argument seems fatally flawed here. Equally, he shows a ludicrously over-the-top reverence for the Dalai Lama, devoting several pages to being thrilled at being touched by him. He should, perhaps, take the advice of Zaphod Beeblebrox’s analyst in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: ‘He’s just this guy, you know?’
It’s not all like that by any means. There is a lot of material in here. Under this ‘meaningful life’ banner, Keltner covers kindness, embarrassment, smiling, laughter, teasing, touching, love, compassion and awe. The approach is very observational. In a lot of sections he describes how videos of people’s reactions are broken down frame by frame to detect facial responses, while there are also reports of brain scans providing a clue to what’s going on in a particular activity. There’s plenty of content – but it’s not always easy to see how a particular conclusion is drawn. It all seems strung together rather haphazardly. I was particularly doubtful about the teasing section, which played down the negative side of teasing – despite what Keltner says, there is a very fine line between teasing and bullying, and much teasing is unpleasant for the victim. On the plus side, apart from the Dalai Lama worship, the touching section was particularly interesting, though the numbers used to analyze people’s guess at the intention of touch were hard to interpret. I was also a bit worried that Freud is spoken of in several places in a fairly positive way, as if he hadn’t been discredited as being totally unscientific.
The conclusion of the book is ‘we are wired for good’ – and though elements of this do come through in the results, there is feeling that this is a search for a conclusion that the author had before he began, with selective interpretation of results along the way. Not entirely satisfactory.
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Review by Brian Clegg

From Cosmos to Chaos – Peter Coles ***

There are times when I think there’s a ‘Shoot Ourselves in the Foot’ department at Oxford University Press. It might seem the only explanation for the frequency with which they produce popular science books that are brilliant concepts but terribly executed. In fact, I think the reason is down to their choice of authors. They seem to choose authors on their academic background, rather than their ability to communicate. So what the reader often ends up with is a book that is replete with promise, but that fails to deliver in catastrophic fashion.
This book is perhaps the most dramatic example of this I have ever seen. The subject is fascinating, both in its intellectually engaging nature and its applicability. Yet the contents are a disaster for the popular science reader. Anyone attempting to read it who isn’t at least a student on a maths or physics degree course is doomed to frustration. It simply doesn’t explain enough, and what it does put across makes much too heavy use of maths.
This is hair-tearingly frustrating because the topic is wonderful. In a slim volume of 211 smallish pages, Peter Coles introduces probability theory, the importance of statistics to science and everyday life, the difference between a Bayesian and frequentist approach to statistics and observes how Bayesian statistics could be of great value in getting a better understanding of many areas. And he throws in quite a lot of cosmology, explaining the importance of statistics in the field. Any one of these would make engaging reading in its own right – together it’s a tour-de-force. In content terms this is easily a five star book.
Yet time after time the reader struggles to understand just what is going on. This isn’t helped by an unusually high number of misprints (often missing words rendering a sentence meaningless), but primarily it’s because the language is impenetrable and Coles does not shy away from scattering the page with integral calculus, instantly turning off 90% of the audience. I’ve always felt the famous advice given to Stephen Hawking that each use of an equation halves the audience was exaggerated – and it very much depends how you use those equations – but here they are much too frequent and too complex. Coles also sticks to the representations used in the ‘real’ equations where often these could be simplified by using terms that are more meaningful.
Altogether the resultant effect is huge frustration. For those who can get the point of this book – pretty well any working scientist with a reasonable grasp of maths, for example – it’s highly recommended. And I know scientists are a significant part of the audience for popular science. But a wider audience deserves to access what’s in this book.
I’d like to make a proposition to OUP. How about doing two versions of books like this, the original and one re-written for the general reader by someone who knows how to communicate science outside the scientific community. (I’d even volunteer to write the general reader versions!) Now that really would be something to celebrate. But for the moment there’s more chaos than cosmos in this book.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Number Freak – Derrick Niederman ***

Things didn’t start well with me with this self-confessed ‘mathematical compendium from 1 to 200′. On the front it has a quote from Carol Vorderman. ‘This book is a complete joy. It made me smile. A lot.’ Is it really a recommendation that a book made Carol Vorderman smile? This started me off in a nervous disposition.
When it comes down to it, this is one of those books that takes a theme and batters it to death. ‘I’ll list every number between 1 and 200 and write something interesting about it,’ thought the author. (Except he couldn’t find anything at all to say about 183.) Oh, good – a bit like counting sheep. Inevitably this format leads to a forced style, but to be fair, Derrick Niederman does manage to dig up some quite interesting material (occasionally it feels like wading through one of the worse episodes of QI) about the numbers in question. At these points it can be entertaining. But all too often I found myself thinking ‘not another…[insert mathematical structure of your choice].’ It all gets a bit samey.
This is not helped by a rather limited ability on the part of the author to explain mathematical matters lucidly. Several times I found myself having to read a paragraph two or three times to try to understand what Niederman was trying to get across. Even straightforward English sometimes presents a challenge. Take this comment about the Olympic rings. ‘Although the colours of the rings – blue, black, yellow, green, and red – do not correspond to [the five regions of the world] in a one-to-one sense, each of these five colours is represented in every national flag in the world.’ Really? Where is the yellow and black in the Union Flag or the Star Spangled Banner? It just doesn’t make sense. What he probably meant is that every national flag contains at least one of these colours, but it’s not what he said, and someone writing about maths should understand the need for precision.
I’d also have been a lot happier if the book gave some explanations for some of the apparently arbitrary labels of mathematics. For instance, we are told 6 is the first perfect number (it’s the sum of the numbers that divide into it, 1, 2 and 3). I knew that. But what I didn’t know, and would like to know, is so what? What does this signify? What does it do or provide us with as a piece of information? How can we use it? It’s just left dangling.
All in all, highly curate’s-egg-like as a reading experience. It’s very rare I don’t get all the way through a book, but I confess I couldn’t be bothered to finish this one.
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Review by Peter Spitz

Monday, 8 February 2010

Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely ****

There is a certain breed of popular science book, often around the social sciences or economics that sets out to shock us by revealing that human nature doesn’t work the way we expect it to. I suppose a good example would be Freakonomics. This books is very much of that ilk, but is more based on science than the purely observational approach of Freakonomics, and manages to produce a similar level of fascination.
In a sense, although not presented as such, it’s a wholesale attack on economics as it is traditionally practised. This is, let’s face it, an easy target. I’ve never understood how economics can compare itself to real sciences, when Nobel Prizes are regularly awarded for totally opposing theories. Real science is built on observation and experiment, while economics seems more based on the Ancient Greek approach of coming up with a top-of-the-head theory to explain something, then defending it by argument.
At the core of the book’s attack is the assumption in traditional economics that human beings are rational and that we try to maximize our benefit. It is only in such circumstances that it is sensible to let the market determine anything – yet the reality (and well all know this without the experiments, but they serve to underline the situation) is that our decisions are anything but rational. We are, as the book’s title suggests, predictably irrational.
This is demonstrated with a wide range of experiments undertaken on the long suffering students of MIT and other nearby universities. (In case this suggests an economic bias, they do sometimes experiment on real human beings, as well as students.) Because this is first person stuff, there are sometimes entertaining outcomes, such as when the author, posing as a barman to study how people’s drink orders are influenced by others at the same table, is assumed to have failed in his career by an ex-colleague. But there is also a steady flow of small shocks as we realize just how irrational we are, whether we’re being unfairly influenced by initial prices (sale, anyone?) or being cured better by expensive medicine.
One side effect of reading this book is you pick up more on irrationality around you. Immediately afterwards, a friend came back from a visit to Blockbuster to rent two DVDs. He came back with four. When asked why, he pointed out that two would have cost £7.50, while four only cost £10. It was much better value for money, he argued. Yes, but he only wanted two DVDs, and he had just spent a third as much again. Yet he couldn’t see that the cunning pricing structure had forced him into irrationality.
The only trouble with a book like this is that after a while the ‘surprises’ when people act irrational are lessened because we’ve come to expect it. So it sags a little towards the end. And it’s short on answers when the author points out the negative effect of a particular irrationality, but can’t suggest any way to overcome that negative. But it’s still a very useful addition to the literature giving the general reader an understanding of why humans will never be truly rational – and why economics needs to recognize this.
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Review by Brian Clegg